Today, photography plays a very exciting part in communicating brand offerings, stories and values to audiences. Looking for a good recipe? Head to your favorite cookbook. A restaurant for your best friend’s birthday dinner? Check out the latest post on your go-to area guide. Searching for a great vegan-friendly lunchbox snack? Your favourite food blog will have the answers.
Luckily, good food photography is not just about your gear or even skills behind the lens. While basic photography rules (and the breaking of them) still apply, there are simple, easy styling tricks you can use to get your photos looking truly professional. The best news? You can do it yourself using inexpensive household products.
With food trends geared towards a much more natural, rustic look for the most part, we’re not talking about about the glazing and gluing of the 90s. Instead, it’s more about using everyday items to create dramatic and realistic improvements in your pictures. Clever use of produce, plating, and props can spell the difference between “nice food photo” and “delicious-looking food.” Remember, edible food always looks the tastiest!
01. Use light to set the mood
Many food photographers choose to work with natural light. If you don’t have the luxury of shooting near a window, or during the day for that matter, there are cheap and effective lighting solutions that can help produce different effects. Your stylist prowess comes into play in the type of lighting to choose to shoot with.
Lighting can say everything about the mood of the food and the type of feeling you’re trying to convey. A healthy nut bar or coconut water, for instance, may require bright daylight to evoke a happy, fresh feel. A high-end restaurant focused on dinner, on the other hand, might be better shot in light that creates stronger shadows or even candlelight in order to express a sexier evening vibe.
Keep in mind the kind of environment you’re shooting in and the light sources available to you and make a conscious decision to set the right mood.
02. Choose a reflector that complements the scene
This is perhaps the simplest and cheapest trick of them all! One of the greatest tools you have available to you in food photography is light and the ability to control it. The tiniest gleam reflected off a juicy orange can create a highlight that makes you want to lick the fruit right off the screen. Similarly, background darkness might have a more serious feel, and cleverly created patterns or shapes from shadow can create a designer look.
When choosing your tool, consider the color and texture of the item. A matte black cardboard folded in half and carefully placed around your shot can create dark shadows or absorb excess light, where white cardboard reflected back onto a dark area will reduce unwanted shadowing and help to create highlights.
For more extreme highlights, reflective and shiny surfaces, such as aluminum, can create great effects similar to flash photography without creating unexpected shadows and flattening of your image.
03. Frame and compose with the subject in mind
Again, this one may seem like more of a general photography problem—what looks good? While you definitely want to shoot your food at a flattering angle, the art of setting up a great food shot has way more to it. Why? Because you are trying to create a feeling. When you approach your shot, you need to think about what you are trying to say and whether you have a story worth telling.
For instance, a solitary plate of food shot from above will emphasize the dish and usually have a more premium, produce-focused feel, whereas a big flatlay spread might have a homelier vibe, creating a mood of togetherness.
80 flavours of ice cream in little saucers and displayed in one shot might work for a gelateria to demonstrate its creativity and variety for a potential customer, whereas a single ice cream cone with triple-stacked, melting scoops will make someone long for summer and the beach.
Through careful consideration of the story you’re trying to tell, the way you frame and compose your shot can invite viewers into your world and give them a taste of what’s on offer.
Backdrops & Props
04. Create your own backdrop
There are countless surfaces to choose from when it comes to backdrops. These days, there are even specialist backdrop creators who make one-off surfaces for photographers. You can save your pennies, though, and opt for something entirely customised with the help of your local hardware store and some basic handyman skills.
A simple board of wood with different textured paints can create a myriad of different types of effects. House paint has come a long way in recent years, and there’s a paint for everything from metal effects (zinc/rust) to cracking and more, in every imaginable color.
Timber yards, recycling centers, garage sales, and even antique stores are great for unique pieces—with their selection of old window frames, doors, and timber chests. DIY alongside repurposed pallets, antique tea chests, vintage baking trays, and more will allow you a point of difference from others going for a similar look.
Think about what you’re trying to say with your backdrop. For instance, dark, smooth, shiny wood might be seen at a premium restaurant where light, reclaimed wood might have more of a country vibe. Make sure your surface is as flat as possible and if you plan to shoot on location, make sure you can lift it!
05. Add texture through fabrics
Another way to introduce texture into your image is through fabric. You can find incredible bargains through the offcuts from your local fabric store or find a specialist supplier who sells upcycled samples or end-of-roll and end-of-season fabrics.
Different materials are great to use for backgrounds or as propping in the form of a napkin, tablecloth, tea towel, or curtain. The texture of your fabric will give off a vibe, so be conscious about the history of the type of fabric you’re using and its current use in everyday life. Linen, for example, is multipurpose and can feel really expensive (or not) depending on its weave, color, and smoothness.
Fabric can also be draped over different surfaces to create shadows, to dull light, or to cast a color over your image. Think outside the napkin square for this one, and you might be surprised with the results!
06. Avoid shiny flatware and silverware
As well as the storytelling and visual appeal components of your tableware props, one of the hardest challenges to overcome can be shine. While many items are literally sold shiny and new, the camera picks this up as hot spots.
Most food photographers and stylists have a collection of plates, bowls, cutlery and even cups and glasses that are low on shine to avoid awkward reflections and highlighting the wrong parts of the shot. Look for antique cutlery that has lost its sheen and handmade ceramics with a matte finish. A little matte hairspray can also sometimes help to get rid of problem shiny areas.
When choosing tableware for your shot, try using items that are relevant to the scene, as well as mixing things up by considering your angles and levels. For example, a stack of small bowls in the corner or a tray underneath a group of glasses can increase visual interest as well as color and appeal.
07. Watch out for distortion
This tip is a pretty specific one but helps to combat lens distortion: Items towards the edges of your shots can often appear bowed, especially when using a wider-angled lens such as a 50mm. By using a small piece of bluetack or a coin underneath the outer edge of your object, it will elevate slightly, and you won’t get such a strong distortion in your pics.
08. Use smaller plates
Nobody likes to waste food, and sometimes, dishes will be created solely for your shot. With the exception of some fine dining restaurants, the objective of your shoot will usually be to make the food look plentiful, implying value-for-money. Using large white plates with a small heap of food in the middle can make the food look sad and the plate look empty. By using smaller plates with less space around the food, you will fill more of your frame and create the appearance of larger helpings.
Food & Plating
09. Hydrate herbs
Droopy, dry garnishes can ruin an otherwise great shot. Whether it be a sprig of mint to top a cocktail or micro-herbs to decorate a dessert, try submerging them in a water bath (ice cubes can help speed up the process) to plump them up.
Additionally, when selecting your garnish, make sure you choose an unblemished sprig, and depending on whether you’re looking at a macro shot, smaller leaves can often look more elegant than larger ones.
10. Pick your produce
Choose your produce wisely for the photo. Fruit and vegetables don’t need to be perfect, and often, a knobbly bump or a leaf will enhance rather than detract from your scene, but major bruises, discoloration, flat spots, or even mould are generally a no-no.
If you do find the perfect strawberry, for instance, bar a small white spot, makeup such as lipstick for discoloration or paint for blemishes can help to disguise the imperfections (although most people do that in post these days).
Instead of making your dish perfect, think about humanizing it by including scattered ingredients or crumbs on the side of the shot. This way, you don’t have to spend as much on props and can introduce the idea of the produce in its natural state before it went into the dish.
11. Plate pasta with purpose
Rather than scooping a large portion of spaghetti and dumping it all in the middle of the plate, try the following trick to bring a little organization to the chaos: Segment small amounts of spaghetti into a separate bowl and add a little sauce over the top. Twirl sections into small mounds onto your chosen prop plate or bowl and add more sauce and a light shaving of parmesan over the top. Don’t forget to add a little fresh (hydrated) basil to finish it off!
12. Glaze hot food
Food can dry out extremely quickly, especially when it’s hot. This is true with anything that has been fried or baked, which can look tough and shriveled on camera. To fix this, brush hot food with oil over the top. Use a basting brush and get your garlic glistening, so it has a nice sheen for the camera.
13. Include drinks when styling
Often, you’ll want to shoot a nice cold, refreshing drink alongside your perfectly-plated dish, especially in summer. However, it can be a nightmare to shoot, especially over a long period of time.
Reinvigorate a tired glass of bubbles using a fork, or for a really flat beverage, by adding a pinch of salt, which will get the bubbles rising.
Regardless of your chosen tipple, many drinks will need that icy cold look. Real ice cubes are great for quick shoots, especially with a range of ice trays now available in every imaginable size and shape. Research what kind of cubes work best in bars for your drink and choose the size accordingly.
For all-day shoots where you want plenty of time to style and frame your shot or for when you want to be able to reuse the drinks for the next pic, specialist acrylic cubes are now available online for food stylists and photographers. A pack of basic cubes might be a good starting point, whereas individual, handcrafted cubes add huge drink-porn appeal but can set you back a pretty penny!
14. Create the illusion of heat
Heat can significantly change the way food looks, and sometimes, not for the better. Not to mention, while on set, kitchen appliances and time are often limited, so you need to use your creativity to manipulate the scene and make the food appear hot.
For example, to get perfect grill marks, you need to get your grill nice and hot and press down the food with just the right pressure, but instead of going through all the trouble, you can use a hair curler or even a brown eyeliner or eye shadow to create them.
Another trick is to undercook dishes like roast chicken or carrots, so they don’t turn too brown or shrivelled. This is a nice way to keep your shots fresh and bright.
For the perfect steam, on the other hand, a moistened cotton ball dipped in water and microwaved on high for a minute or 2 can make a scene look hot and steamy—although this is quite a specialized technique.
Don’t forget, food often shoots best without too much interference, so consider your image and recipe beforehand.
15. Use long-handled tweezers
Chefs are extremely particular about equipment, especially when it comes to their knives and, surprisingly, their tweezers. Many specialist long-handled tweezers available on the market are perfect for food styling. These will be your saving grace when it comes to fussy clients or when you want to get your sesame seed placement just right. The ones with the pointy tips are excellent for getting into tight spots without disturbing the rest of the dish.
16. Show movement
Possibly one of the most interesting trends in food photography has been the emphasis on movement and human interaction with the food.
While cookbooks still often feature the perfect, untouched dish, social media has led the way for photos with hands, people, and even lipstick marks on cups or bite marks in cookies, and anything else that shows somebody enjoying a meal.
Behind-the-scenes shots also fare well on social media. Icing sugar being sifted over a cake, final garnishes being placed on food, or drinks being poured in a cup—not just the final product—are often the center of attention.
While shutter speed will often determine the emphasis of the shot itself, how you style the image will help create the narrative. Make sure your models have a fresh manicure and change of accessories or clothes, so you can mix it up!
Let’s get snapping!
The sky really is the limit when it comes to food styling. Decide the subject of your shoot—whether it be an ingredient, a dish, a technique or a cuisine, shape your shot around the story behind it. Just remember, while food stylists often use many more tricks, these days, food photography is all about fresh, seasonal ingredients and food that looks good enough to eat.